Ann Slavit Gordon: Collaboration is an Art
ONCE UPON A TIME, Ann Slavit Gordon suspended a gigantic green boot above a Broadway marquee. Another time, she installed 30-foot-long ballet slippers on the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was the 1980s, and her career as a maker of large public sculptures was at its peak. Although she had no way of knowing it at the time, those art projects gave her a set of skills that would come into play, years later, in her current role as president of a 122-unit co-op in the Van Cortlandt Village section of the Bronx.
“I had to create teams of people to go from sketch to reality,” says Gordon, now 64. “I actually love collaborating. The artwork was a bridge toward community – between artist, businessmen, educators, architects, engineers.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that Gordon got elected to her co-op’s 11-member board. She soon discovered it was an entrenched group – some members had been serving upwards of two decades – and they were loath to spend money, even when it made sense.
“It amazed me when I first got on the board,” she says, “that it was so easy for people to resist challenges. There are a million ways to say no. We were just going from repair to repair to repair. The board had a very laissez-faire attitude about what’s possible in a middle-income building like ours. I could see that we needed to form a new team.”
The need for fresh blood became acutely apparent last year, when a chronically leaky roof and rising costs for heating oil, taxes, water, and electricity forced the board to increase maintenance by 10.6 percent. But that unpleasant experience had a positive effect.
“Financial pain forces you to get better at the way you use resources,” Gordon says. “It was a big wake-up call that we couldn’t keep coasting.”
Learning to Lead
Since her first days on the board, Gordon had been attending seminars organized by the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums. She was particularly drawn to presentations on sustainability put together by Lewis Kwit, president of a consulting firm called Energy Investment Systems. But she knew the board would resist Kwit’s preachings because of a “skittishness,” a suspicion that consultants were there to sell a bill of unnecessary goods.
Gordon persevered and invited Kwit to come up to the Bronx. He toured the building, then came back and spoke for several hours to the board’s energy committee, which he describes as a group of “true believers” who understand that when it comes to energy you’ve got to spend money in order to save money.
Out of that meeting grew an aggressive, multi-pronged plan to address the building’s future energy needs. It includes the following: insulate the roof and replace it with an energy-efficient, sunlight-reflecting surface; convert both boilers from No. 6 oil to natural gas and then install two separate gas-fired water heaters for use during non-heating season; replace all 56 leaky terrace doors; use a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) subsidy to defray the cost of installing utility submeters; replace up to half of the appliances (air conditioners, refrigerators, dishwashers) with energy-efficient models; install bi-level lighting in public areas; and install new shower heads to save on rising water bills. The plan qualified the building for a $72,000 grant from NYSERDA.
The total cost of the improvements will be about $1 million. The roof replacement – the top priority – will be paid through the building’s credit line. The board plans to refinance the mortgage next year and is already negotiating a no-interest NYSERDA loan and a matching bank loan. The goal is to save enough money on energy so that maintenance will not go up.
Deft and Dedicated
As Kwit sees it, nothing would have come to pass without Gordon’s deft and dedicated leadership. “She realizes that the cost of energy has risen faster than all other operating costs,” Kwit says. “What she understands is that you cannot maintain the status quo by doing nothing. She’s really brilliant and enormously compassionate about improving the building and bringing people together. She has recruited NYSERDA people, the former board president, and academics who live in the building. She’s not shy about reaching out and building a coalition within the building. She gets the right people involved. And, believe me, that’s not easy to do.”
One of a co-op board’s most important functions, in Gordon’s opinion, is to get other shareholders involved in the running of the building. The way to do this, she says, is to make sure that information moves freely.
“It’s up to the leadership to invite participation,” she says. “That’s the most crucial thing you can do. By talking to a lot of people and being a good listener, I found the right people to serve on committees, even to create committees. In general, I think if cooperators are well-informed, they’ll contribute a lot and step up to the plate quickly.”
It wasn’t a simple matter of cutting away the dead wood. Many of today’s most active and effective board members were in office long before Gordon joined the board. They’ve simply been rejuvenated by Gordon’s leadership – and by the realization that change is not only possible, it’s necessary. They’ve also been joined by new members who understand that the old way of doing things doesn’t work in today’s world.
“There’s more discussion and transparency now,” Gordon says. “We used to have skimpy turnouts at our annual meetings, and now we get huge turnouts.”
Nancy E. Russell: Confrontation is Good
When Nancy E. Russell moved into a rental apartment in Brooklyn 30 years ago, she had no idea that one day she would lead the building toward a new life as a co-op.
After graduating from college in her native North Carolina, Russell, now 67, moved to Brooklyn in 1966. Since then, she has held a variety of jobs, working as a children’s counselor, running homeless shelters, and working for a social services union. Today, she’s a grievance consultant for the Organization of Staff Analysts, which handles collective bargaining for unionized city workers in numerous departments, including the Board of Education and the Transit Authority. It is, in her words, “a rich history of how to manage things.”
That history would come into play after 1982, when she rented an apartment in the 66-unit building at 34 Jefferson Avenue in Brooklyn, where the Clinton Hill and Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods meet. The building, erected in 1905, has a rich – and tangled – history of its own. Tenants took the landlord to court in 1979 and won permission to move toward becoming a limited-equity Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) co-op. When Russell moved into the building three years later, virtually no steps had been taken toward a transition from rental to co-op.
A Perverse Fraud?
Time – a lot of it – passed. Eventually, some people in the building came up with a perverse strategy. If the building stopped paying its real estate taxes, they reasoned, it would eventually become delinquent and would then qualify for admission to the city’s so-called “Third Party Transfer” (TPT) program. This program was created in 1996 to allow the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to get government grants for the rehabilitation of troubled buildings – those with unpaid taxes, liens, code violations, or deferred maintenance – and then transfer the rehabbed building to a responsible new owner. The new owners of the foreclosed property, according to this strategy, would be the shareholders of the newly formed cooperative corporation. So in 2001, the tenants stopped paying city real estate taxes as a way of jump-starting the conversion process.
Russell, infuriated by the maneuver that she calls a “fraud,” filed a lawsuit against the building’s administrators challenging the policy. Under a settlement in 2008, the property entered the Third Party Transfer program, with the express goal of becoming a limited-equity co-op. Neighborhood Restore HDFC would hold the building’s deed during the conversion process, and the non-profit Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) would be the developer, supervising physical improvements to the building. The residents formed a tenants’ association and elected a new board, with Russell as president.
This was when her work experience began to come into play. “I started pursuing how to become a co-op,” Russell says. “I took HDFC courses on how to run a corporation. I already knew how to do a paper trail, and I started reading and learning and gathering knowledge. I learned the city codes, I made sure taxes were getting paid, I did audits. We made it into a corporation.”
Unfortunately, the developer wasn’t doing much developing. “There were lots of meetings, but nothing happened,” recalls Linda Marston-Reid, a fundraiser for a non-profit arts organization who moved into the building in 2008 because it has what she calls “gorgeous bones” and, better yet, she heard it was on its way to becoming a co-op. She was promptly elected vice president of the board. “Every month we had a board meeting and discussed how we were going to handle the conversion. But nothing had gotten done. PACC’s plans were hazy. Once you begin not doing what you said you were going to do, people lose faith. And the tenants were losing faith in PACC. Someone suggested we find another developer.”
In 2010, the board fired PACC and the residents voted to bring in a new sponsor/developer, the non-profit Community Assisted Tenant Controlled Housing (CATCH). The non-profit’s executive director, Carlton Collier, made a persuasive presentation, including the promise that CATCH “will acquire, manage, and rehabilitate the building with the intention of sponsoring the tenant organization to eventually own this property, as a limited-equity cooperative.”
Russell was already busy. The building needed work because, as she puts it, “you’ve got to attract the right people if you want to be a successful co-op.” The board hired architect Carlos Mieles to give the building a complete physical, from roof to basement. Mieles came up with an elaborate plan for upgrading the building that included the following: combining two lines of studio apartments to create larger one-bedroom apartments on all six floors; enlarging all of the century-old bathrooms and making them handicapped-accessible; replacing all wiring and plumbing lines; renovating all kitchens; renovating the heating system and common areas; and replacing the boiler, roof, windows, and doors. To pay for the work, CATCH negotiated an $8 million loan from HPD and the Community Preservation Corporation.
But one person’s forceful leader is another person’s abrasive nuisance, and Russell and the new developer were soon clashing. Marston-Reid believes Collier had a “vendetta” against Russell. According to meeting minutes from last summer, Collier accused Russell of being “dictatorial” and treating the other board members as her personal “puppets.” Something had to give.
Late last year, after the construction work was under way, Russell persuaded the other members of the tenants’ association to fire Collier. He was replaced by Ken Wray, who had helped establish CATCH in 1991 and is now its executive director. Residents say Wray’s “more thoughtful” and “less hostile” demeanor has been a major improvement.
But that doesn’t mean that the sailing is always smooth or that the outcome is set. “It’s not guaranteed the building will become a co-op,” says Wray, noting that the renovation work will run through next year and the determination of the building’s future – as rental property or co-op – probably won’t come until 2014. “The city has high standards that must be met. They want to know that the people are serious about being a co-op and that it’s going to succeed.”
For starters, at least 80 percent of the residents must choose to join the co-op. And when CATCH contracts with the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board to run classes to teach residents how to run a co-op, the city expects regular attendance by at least two-thirds of the people in the building. The city will also review whether tenants were cooperative during construction and whether rent payments are up-to-date. If these criteria are not met to the city’s satisfaction, CATCH would retain ownership of the building, it would remain a rental property, and a tenant board would run it – an outcome just about nobody wants.
Difficult and Strong-minded
“Nancy has some very strong ideas about the building,” Wray says. “She’s difficult and strong-minded. We disagree on some basic stuff, but I think we both want the same thing – for this building to become a successful co-op.”
What motivates a person to take on a challenge of this kind – with its abundant headaches, no chance of monetary reward, and no guarantee of success? Looking back, Russell says she was moved to get involved when people stopped paying taxes and steered the building toward foreclosure. It was simply wrong, in her eyes, and that’s something she finds intolerable.
“I hate to see people suffering; I hate to see injustice,” she says. “I hate to see people try to take something from people that they’ve worked for all their lives.”
Marston-Reid, the board’s vice president, puts it this way: “Nancy is very concerned about people’s rights. Nothing makes her madder than to see people get treated unfairly or see someone get special treatment. The one thing Nancy brings is leadership. She has put 20 years of her life – blood, sweat, tears, and money – into this building. No one else was willing to step up. She brings things to the attention of the management company, and she has held the developers accountable. She’s a kind person, but the flip side is that she’s strong and she’s opinionated. She knows the building and she doesn’t put up with nonsense or dilly-dallying. This process of going co-op would have fizzled and died without her.”
Adds Russell: “I’ve had experience seeing people get hurt. So I’ve become relentless in the name of justice and fair play.”